We need to take a stand in SF

May 19, 2010

Andy Libson, a teacher at Mission High School and member of United Educators for San Francisco, is active in the union's reform caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union.

AFTER TELLING union delegates to prepare to strike to stop layoffs, leaders of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) seem ready to throw in the towel and propose acceptance of a concessionary deal.

UESF has called for an emergency union delegate Assembly meeting May 19 to vote on a tentative agreement. Though the details of the deal are not known at this time, it will likely include millions of dollars in concessions from our members.

UESF President Dennis Kelly apparently believes that UESF members will accept the language of "shared sacrifice" from politicians who want workers make all the givebacks while the wealthy remain untouched.

The tentative agreement is expected to allow layoffs of 250 teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, security staff and child development workers. This is an unnecessary concession. The money is there to hold onto the jobs of all SF educators if we force the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to find it.

More importantly, our union is sending a message that it is willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of some of our members in order to preserve the jobs of the rest of us. This is the opposite of solidarity and has nothing in common with the principles that built our unions. Furthermore, such a concession only greases the wheels for future layoffs that SFUSD will seek to justify through further budget deficits.

Members of United Educators of San Francisco at a solidarity picket
Members of United Educators of San Francisco at a solidarity picket

UESF leaders will argue that this is the best we can do. I don't think that's true. Just a few weeks ago, on the March 4 Day of Action to defend public education in California, our union had a strong showing with big and spirited protests. Yet now we're at the point where our union leaders are prepared to accept massive concessions with no real sign of sacrifice from SFUSD.

In fact, the UESF leadership has badly handled much of the bargaining, and balked at the very point we might have pressed the advantages we gained during our March 4 mobilization, the high-water mark in the fight for public education. A few days later, UESF had the largest Assembly meeting in recent years. Everyone wanted to know the same thing: What do we do next?

The tack taken by UESF leadership was essentially this: "This was a great protest, now we wait and see how it impacts bargaining."

THERE WERE two major problems with this strategy. One, it demobilized our membership at the point at which they were most ready for action. Making a call for action in the afterglow of the March 4 mobilization was not only possible, it was a no-brainer. In politics, this is called a missed opportunity.

Second, our bargaining team had been reporting little or no progress for months. In fact, we seemed to be losing badly at the table. Four furlough days turned to eight. Millions in Proposition A money--funds created by a ballot initiative that were reserved for educators--was being surrendered by UESF, with little indication that we were getting anything from SFUSD.

On the contrary, SFUSD negotiators declared that any concessions on our part wouldn't even make a dent in the 1,000 layoffs proposed by the district.

The UESF bargaining team also kept reporting how surprised they were at the seeming transformation of SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia, from friendly ally to bitter opponent.

For some of us, this was not a surprise. It was clear that a threat of receivership from the state capital in Sacramento was being used as a whip to force school districts to get tough with educators and their unions. Garcia's transformation from friendly pussycat to deadly tiger was driven by the same political process that turned California's budget crisis into a shock doctrine--one that's being used to justify the decimation of California's school system, from preschool to college.

The union leadership also further muddied the waters by emphasizing their efforts to make gains on a number of non-monetary contractual items. While these issues are important, they pale in comparison to the layoffs. SFUSD was able to capitalize on this tactical error, and portray UESF as being unreasonable and quibbling over small matters. In fact, the opposite was true. The UESF leadership had already given up $27 million worth of concessions--but SFUSD wasn't giving us anything, and wanted more.

At the same time, UESF pressed forward with a series of rallies at the Board of Education meetings that sought to press the board to "accept our offer," and convince Superintendent Garcia to "be reasonable." This strategy gained little at the bargaining table, and served only to confuse the membership.

Finally, backed into a corner, UESF walked away from the bargaining table when SFUSD would not accept the concessions the union had proposed to save jobs. Nor would SFUSD give ground on any of the non-monetary contractual items. To add insult to injury, SFUSD did offer to reduce the more than 1,000 layoffs they wanted--by just 75. SFUSD then called negotiations at an impasse.

In response, UESF finally began to make the issue of layoffs a central theme in their campaign. The slogan, "no layoffs" finally became more prominent, and the issue of the 18 non-monetary contract items receded into the background. UESF highlighted the $52 million in SFUSD payments to consultants and $40 million in the district's reserve funds--both of which could and should be tapped to save jobs.

It was the successful April 29 strike by the neighboring Oakland Education Association (OEA) that really shook things up. To the surprise of both the Oakland Unified School District and the UESF leadership, OEA's strike was a huge success. It involved the mass of the union membership, drew wide community support, shut down schools and brought OUSD back to the bargaining table.

In the face of OEA's success, UESF leadership made the right decision in early May to call for a membership meeting on May 20 to authorize a strike vote, thereby paving the way for an October strike. This move was sure to get the attention of SFUSD and San Francisco politicians who didn't want to see a strike only a month before the coming November elections.

UESF went into action. Building reps around the school district, myself included, were asked to build member attendance to the May 20 meeting. The response was immediate, as members started to discuss and debate the impact of the coming meeting. There was a sense of relief that our union was finally doing something to fight back--a feeling we had lost since March 4. The stated goal was to get a 900-member quorum (of 6,500 members overall), and to get a large percentage of members to vote "yes" on authorizing a strike vote.

UPON HEARING that UESF was moving forward on the strike process and aware that a buzz was starting to be built in the schools, SFUSD relented fairly quickly. The school district was now willing to reduce the layoffs of only certificated teachers (paraprofessional layoffs were left in place).

At the May 10 board meeting, Superintendent Garcia indicated his willingness through a "conceptual agreement" with UESF to cut the number of layoffs even further to 250, including about 200 layoffs of certificated personnel. UESF President Kelly later claimed that layoffs of paraprofessionals would be reduced by half, to about 50.

Nevertheless, the school board voted to approve 350 certificated layoffs on May 10 in case UESF fails to ratify the tentative agreement. (The board vote didn't address paraprofessional layoffs.)

This was clearly a breakthrough and showed the progress that can be made in bargaining if members are being mobilized to act in their own defense. In the face of a challenge, SFUSD blinked.

Yet instead of pushing forward, the UESF leadership's next move was to immediately pull the plug on the membership meeting and move toward ratification of an agreement with layoffs and major concessions. This served only to disappoint members who were prepared to see what we could do if we acted decisively, and who were prepared to support our bargaining team with a massive showing on May 20.

SFUSD has spent months pressing every political advantage it could to push UESF into making concessions, and never pulled any punches when our side asked for more cooperation. Now when UESF was in a position to press our advantage and potentially force SFUSD to find the money to save all our jobs, UESF backed off.

Rather than accepting this deal, UESF instead could have acknowledge the progress being made, but made it loud and clear that we must proceed on the strike vote authorization until every last layoff notice was rescinded. We had already put up $27 million in concessions in the spirit of "shared sacrifice." But we should have only done so if we could guarantee that every one of our members who was making the sacrifice could be guaranteed a job in San Francisco next year.

UESF leaders could have put this position forward on the basis of basic unionism: An injury to one is an injury to all. Such a move would have tapped into the sense of solidarity among our members, who are open to many sacrifices in order to ensure the preservation of the jobs of all their union brothers and sisters.

Could we have saved every job? I believe if the UESF leadership had shown the resolve already found in our members, we could have.

The leadership has rightly argued that the money is there to avoid layoffs. UESF members have shown on March 4 and again in preparation for the aborted May 20 membership meeting that they were ready to act to save their jobs and preserve some semblance of stability in the face of relentless budget cut attacks. And the OEA has shown us that the community will support teachers when we act to defend public education.

Further, SFUSD made it clear that it would buckle in the face of a union that shows the resolve to fight. The time was right to step up the fight.

Instead, UESF leaders backed down at the very moment when we needed to make SFUSD feel the heat for once. SFUSD has made it clear that they will only respond to the demands of our bargaining team when our members making preparations to strike. The best way to get SFUSD to listen is to let our members do the talking.

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